The Faberge’ Egg Redemption

Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Remember the old prank? When the unsuspecting clerk would reply “Yes” about his inventory of the popular chewing tobacco tins, the prankster would say, “Then why don’t you let him out!?”

Beaver Cleaver got in trouble with Ward for pulling that on the local grocer but not before he and his chubby buddy, Larry Mondello, phoned another grocer to ask if they had frog legs. When the grocer proudly responded “Yes”, the Beave said, “Well put some pants and shoes on and no one will notice.” The boys then quickly hung up the phone and rolled on the floor in a fit of laughter over their witty comedic success. There must be something about the tween-er years where this simple phone prank can generate such a thrill. It may be evidence of a budding independence.

The Prankster

My daughter, Sarah, then in sixth or seventh grade, was drawn to the rush of a seemingly harmless prank during the idle hours after school.

Equipped with a phone, she and her girlfriend, picked a name at random from the city directory and set their plan in motion. Unbeknownst to the girls, they had picked Marie, an elderly widowed client of mine, who just happened to be an early adopter of Caller ID. While they thought they were hiding behind the anonymity of a random phone call and a lowered tone of their voices – it was my name that appeared in bold letters on Marie’s phone.

On the first call they started to pose a simple double entendre question but got cold feet and hung up. Marie dismissed it as a wrong number or a miss-dial but she had seen my name.

The girls took five minutes to work up their nerve then re-dialed. By this time, Marie had returned to the far end of her home to resume a task. It took quite a few rings before she could get to the phone. The girls made some goofy statement and hung up. Now Marie, tired and frustrated from having to run to the phone for a fake call, looks at the Caller ID again and sees the same perpetrator. She called my office and politely asked through veiled frustration why Craig or his staff would contact her and then hang up. Sensing the edge in her voice my secretary forwarded the call to me and though bewildered, I apologized for the hassle she experienced. While I knew nothing about it – I promised her I would look into the situation and report back to her.

I called home and asked Sue if by chance she had dialed a number in error. No, she hadn’t been on the phone. I asked if she would check on Sarah and she soon found the girls upstairs and yes, they were giggling and they had a phone. I left the office and headed home.

When the girls admitted to making the calls – I sent the friend home – play time was over. While the other girl would not be punished – Sarah was far from being out of the woods.

She froze when I told her we were going that afternoon to visit Mrs. Robinson to apologize. As we got in the car I painted a picture of the ramifications of her actions: The stress on an elderly woman, the frustration in upsetting Marie’s schedule and mine, the potential harm to my business to risk losing a client due to her actions. Sarah rode along quietly as we crossed town to Marie’s. As we sat in the car outside her home, I explained to Sarah what would likely happen in the meeting and what it means to apologize if we wrong someone. This was not a matter of a simple “I’m sorry”, a quick In-and-Out, because too often “I’m sorry” can be a throw away line – like accidentally bumping into a stranger on a crowded street. The guideline for the afternoon meeting was we would not leave Marie’s home until I heard Sarah say the words “Will you please forgive me.” She hesitated. Forgive is not a word commonly used at her age but then this is not about the convenience of youth, this is about a lesson on the road to young womanhood.

First Day of School

I repeated the rule of the day – We will not leave the home until you say those words. If you think there will be a lull in the conversation and then we’ll make an exit, you’ll be forgetting that I know how to talk with people. I talk with people all day long. I can carry on a conversation for a long time and will just keep things going until I hear those words. Is that clear?

We slowly walked the long sidewalk from the curb to the front door. I was encouraged anticipating my client’s sweetness to help us through the visit but Sarah walked to the door expecting to find the electric chair on the other side.

Marie met us at the door and with a cautious smile invited us into her living room. After some pleasantries I began with my apology that my family would cause this situation to occur. After a pause I suggested Sarah had something she wanted to say. Sarah, looking first at the floor, began with a weak apology that included an “I’m sorry” to which Marie offered an obligatory acceptance. She explained why it’s difficult for an older person to move around quickly and the frustration of having to hurry to the phone only to find a prankster involved. She was ready to accept this “sorry” as a technical concession and move on.

But I stalled – Sarah hadn’t met the standard yet. Sarah made another attempt and included an off the cuff “I’m sorry” that sounded more to me like her heart was still hanging on to “how could you get so bent out of shape to cause me this grief, you know the other girl didn’t have to be here.”

After another pause in the conversation I began talking about the family pictures around the room and about some of the artwork she displayed. It was engaging conversation about things important to Marie – but Sarah knew what I was doing. She shifted her position on the ottoman. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to say to Marie. Sarah paused, lifted her eyes to meet those of the beautiful, silver-haired Marie, and said “Mrs. Robinson, I’m sorry this happened . . . and . . . will you please forgive me?” Marie, who never had children of her own, leaned forward and with a perfect grandmother’s smile patted Sarah’s knee. “My dear,” she said, “I’m so proud of you and yes, I forgive you and I honor you for having the courage to come and see me. Would you like to see my art collection?”

Now, in the time it took to complete a simple phrase, Sarah had gone from perpetrator to an honored guest on a home tour.  Marie, led Sarah into her bedroom workshop and showed her handiwork of creating decorative ostrich and goose eggs. These exquisite pieces are adorned with sequins and gemstones and complete with hinged doors and windows. They were inspired by the world-famous Faberge’ Eggs collected by early 1900s Russian nobility. Marie’s works of art are another example of the talent often hid among the main streets of our communities.

Marie is rejuvenated in offering forgiveness, making a new young friend and now to be showing her pride and joy artwork. Sarah is gracious in listening to the presentation and is fascinated by the handiwork of the woman who, a couple of hours ago, was an unlisted victim of a prank. What began as a number in the directory has become the code to unlock a door of understanding to Sarah’s future.

All Growed Up

And then it happened. Marie took an exquisite finished egg off the shelf, told the story of its creation and the unique problems it presented. And then she turned and presented it to Sarah. “I’d like you to have this, Sarah.”  We were both dumbstruck. Sarah hesitated at her unworthiness but Marie affirmed her bravery and maturity in coming forth to apologize. It was humbling to be in the presence of an earthly expression of a heavenly gesture – a gift – undeserved, unmerited, and freely given.

Bonus Link

Here’s a link to a favorite speaker of mine, Dr. Kevin Elko, a sports psychologist. This short talk he presented January 30th is called “Separate the Who from the Do” and talks about our reaction to making mistakes. I think you’ll enjoy his thoughts as you start your week.


Next Time You Swing that Skillet (My Face Ain’t Gonna Be There)

Made you look.

And now for something completely different.

While I’ll touch briefly on the song title found in this post, today’s thought centers on music appreciation. Had I led with the title: Music Appreciation – Listen to What the Flower People Say, I doubt many would have read this far. Today, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the music of your life.

Most people have settled on their music style . . . you’ll often hear “she’s country western” or “he’s a rocker.”  My style may be difficult to fit into a category. I was exposed to a variety of music when the pace of change in popular music became exponential. The radio airwaves competed for attention with music ranging from the Beatles and the sidewalk surfing tunes of the ’60s to Broadway musicals to southern Gospel, hard rock and disco – all within my educational experience of basic classical training in piano and voice. I was also influenced by my fascination with late night talk radio. I always dreamed of hosting my own talk show. On KMOX, the powerful 50,000 watt Voice of St. Louis, John McCormick, (“The Man Who Walks and Talks at Midnight”) interspersed his news stories with the classics of the American song book including the artists Bennett, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Cole, Horn, and others. If you looked at my “Favorite Stations” list on Pandora (the internet radio service) you’d find reserved buttons for Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Randy Travis (country western), Symphony classics, Gilbert and Sullivan, Alison Kraus (blue grass), romantic opera, southern gospel, Opera Babes, Sarah Brightman & Andre Bocelli, James Taylor (folk), Peter White (light jazz), The Bee Gees (sorry) and Mel Torme (vocal jazz). When at the computer I select from the list to accompany the task at hand. As of now, Alison Krauss gets top billing with a Mel Torme encore.

Music can appeal to us on several levels. First, at the intellectual level the appeal is driven by the message of the song. Sometimes the lyrics carry the day . . . the melody is a convenient conveyance – an afterthought. The poetry is the music. It’s like finding the perfect greeting card that says just what you want to communicate.

As example, a genre that may communicate at an intellectual level, although rarely thought of as such, is classic country western. The category is known in part for its clever song titles that say so much. You are drawn to the song before you even hear the tune: “Next Time You Swing that Skillet (My Face Ain’t Gonna Be There)”, “I Went Back to My Fourth Wife for the Third Time and Gave Her a Second Chance to Make a First Class Fool Out of Me”, “We Used to Kiss on the Lips But It’s All Over Now” and “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like Having You Here.” The list goes on as it may take a good number of similar titles to total up to something actually intellectual but the poetry of the lyric is a powerful part of the musical experience.

On another level, the passion and interpretation of a musical idea by the writer or the artist can deliver inspiration in the notes alone – beyond the lyrics. There’s the stirring music of an Italian opera where, although the words are “Greek” to me, the artist conveys significant meaning and emotion through his or her interpretation which proves again that music is a universal language.

An example is found in Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot”.  This aria is one of the most famous tenor solos in all of opera and includes notes at the top of the range of opera tenors. I am reminded in watching the following video of an earlier interview with Pavarotti in which he described opera singing as “controlled yelling”.

The opera is set in Peking and Turandot is the cold-blooded yet beautiful princess who has many suitors. She has established a law that if a suitor cannot correctly answer the three riddles she poses – his head will be cut off.  Her attractiveness must be overwhelming to risk such an outcome. Calaf (the role played by Pavarotti) has successfully answered the three riddles and yet Turandot balks at keeping her end of the bargain to marry the successful suitor.  Calaf, even knowing he has won, now poses a riddle of his own. She must tell him his name by morning and if she can – he will agree to die. It speaks of his love for her that having already won he would risk this measure to demonstrate his devotion and win her heart with his daring. The princess decrees none of her subjects may sleep until his name is discovered. If they fail, all will be killed. Frankly, I would move on to the next woman, but this is opera.

‘That all must stay awake’ is the opening line . . . “Nessun dorma” (None shall sleep) and Calaf, now alone in the garden, sings this aria which builds to the glorious declaration: “Vanish, O night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win! (Vincero, Vincero, Vincero!)”

I never tire of this piece and have included a video showing my favorite Pavarotti version. While there are clearer video recordings, I love his expressions and especially the moments on his face as he concludes the song.  Many have attempted this popular tenor solo but Pavarotti’s is widely regarded as a masterpiece for both his vocal performance as well as his operatic interpretation of the piece. I hope you enjoy this work of art.

Click the play button for Pavrotti’s performance of Nessun Dorma from the Three Tenors Concert. (I had trouble getting sound/video to synch on iPad but was OK on laptop.)

On yet another level, there are songs where the message of the lyrics and the language of the music come together at a meaningful time to make a song memorable…. to make it “your song” or “our song.”

In closing, here’s a song that meets this category for me. You, most likely, have not heard of this obscure choral piece I learned during my time in a college a capella choir. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term “a capella” this clip from the Andy Griffith Show may enlighten you.)

For over 80 years my college choir has enjoyed a reputation of delivering the finest in a capella choral music. In addition, it’s a family affair for us. My parents met in this choir and a generation later, my wife and I sang with the choir as well. The repertoire is always challenging – these were difficult pieces to master.

My favorite song among many from which to choose was entitled “Ye Shall Go Out With Joy” by Randall Thompson. (Not to be confused with the sing-songy contemporary interpretation of scripture often listed as “You Shall Go Out With Joy.”)  Thompson’s number was a favorite then and continues so. The song speaks to me on three levels.

First, the intellectual level as the text is lifted directly from Isaiah 55:12. Others have noted the similar themes of the scripture found at Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” Anytime a song speaks directly from the scriptures — you’re on solid ground. It is a marvelous feat of composition to work with such elaborate text and turn out a masterful work.

Another level is the skillful way in which the composer links the music with the text. It is the onomatopoeia of music where the sound itself matches and enhances the message of the text. I’m sure there’s a musical term for it. As you listen to the text from Isaiah and the promise of joy you are surrounded by waving trees of the fields (your encouragers), the trumpets of celebration, the peeling bells of the tower and the ground swell of the crowd. All of this is accomplished using only the instrument of gifted voices. The dissonance which adds to the majesty of this piece makes it very difficult to perform.

Our small church choir attempted this number for a spring concert. The director put it on the program as a favor to me as it was far more difficult than the anthems the church choir usually sang. It turned out to be more of an audience participation piece as the congregation was willing us through to the finish as it must have sounded as if we needed all the help we could get.

The third level to which it speaks is of a personal nature. This was the song most often on my lips and in my mind during the darkest days of my cancer ordeal at the Cleveland Clinic. For seven weeks I was reduced to a lump on the bed as they pumped me full of high dose chemotherapy during an experimental bone marrow harvest protocol. In those times of despair and darkness it was this song that spoke encouragement to me for the coming days of hope and the promise to be reunited with my family and friends. It became my song.

Click on the following link to hear the choir sing this selection. You’ll first be taken to another page in the blog and once there click on the link again and allow the file to load a player. It takes about five seconds for the sound to begin once the player appears. (Let me know if you have trouble.)

Ye Shall Go Out With Joy – Greenville College Choir 1995

Music is everywhere. While I have spoken to it’s better nature – music can also be abused as when poor selections are cranked up in a restaurant for the sole purpose of turning tables. In the din we risk losing the good due to the abundance of the mediocre. Listen for the levels from which a song speaks to you. Try to hear the composer and listen for the artist’s interpretation. Not everything is good – much lacks musical depth, many lack intellectual significance (ie. The Next Time You Swing that Skillet) but if you listen with a discerning ear you will be rewarded with gems to brighten your spirits.

Enjoy the music of the spheres.

The Importance of Seat Selection

It was the start of my college career. Everything was new . . . new subjects to study, new organizations, new friends and new opportunities. There’s even a new flavor about classes . . . the predictability of high school instruction is gone. Subjective studies are explored within a framework that satisfies classroom curiosity – dialogue is used as an instructional tool.  Sure, some disciplines, such as accounting, work within normal parameters but now allow for a deeper understanding of financial theory. (In my dad’s Accounting 101 class, however, they will still begin with this rule: The debits are on the same side as the windows.)

I enrolled in a class under the general heading of English Composition which promised to engage this new approach to education. The possibilities were inviting and the professor of my early afternoon Creative Writing 101 class has a doctorate in the subject, so I’m all in. Setting a relaxed tone, he sat on a stool before the group of twenty or so students and after a brief review of his class rules and a cursory introduction of the subject it was time to jump in to our first assignment in Creative Writing.

We were to turn to the person next to us . . . close our eyes . . . and feel their face with our fingers. Then, with eyes still closed, describe to that person what their face feels like and have them write down our thoughts. From these notes we would then prepare a paragraph or two to paint their portrait in words.

This college thing is better than I expected for, you see, the room is full of lovely women and seated next to me is a beautiful first year coed from Indianapolis. I’ve seen her around campus and for days I’d been working up the nerve to ask her out.

This assignment was my ticket. Even before being told to begin I was at work on the subject matter. It was all there . . . exquisite complexion, chiseled goddess like facial features, rose-like lips, and her eyes were the window to my future. The promise of spring was at hand. My creative forces were launched – this is the start of something big.

Here I was, worried about how to ask her out and now the professor is handing it to me on a silver platter. The stars were aligning – I knew she was from a good family, although I had yet to learn if her father had money. This brilliant, insightful, class assignment might include a proposal of marriage before I could get to that delicate chin. College is so much better than high school.

I was mentally editing my third draft before the assignment even began. I remember thinking something poetic about unborn children. For a moment I contemplated a Departmental Honors Paper and was already outlining my graduate coursework in modern poetry. I knew now, because of the inspired and gifted teaching of my college professor, I would become a writer . . . wear tweed and live near a pond in Massachusetts.

But then, the professor said a significant thing and it’s stayed with me all these years.  He said “Now, please turn to the student on your left and begin.” And there sat . . . Bob . . . a smiling, greasy faced, pock-marked, pimply headed guy from a Chicago suburb over whose face I had to run my fingers. But remember, the assignment didn’t stop there. I then had to describe out loud to him what I felt. Later I would have to read my prose to the entire class and Bob and I would relive the moment. What began as an assignment in Creative Writing became an extra credit exercise in diplomacy for a Political Science class.

It was then my career options re-centered and what can I say . . . I became a stockbroker. Today, I mostly wear a cotton/polyester blend and the closest I am to a body of water is after a heavy rain – the basement at my office floods.

I can’t blame the professor. I’m sure he doesn’t know he taught something far beyond the objectives of the day’s lesson plan. Come to think of it, this is the same English teacher who taught me a double negative is a “no-no.”

I never had a date with the girl from Indianapolis. Every time I saw her in the future my fingers got greasy and tingled with the tactile memory of Bob’s face. From then on, I made it a point to always sit next to the windows with a pretty girl next to me in anticipation of another adventure in Creative Writing.

The Waltz of the Barbers

I would often follow my nose or simply kick a stone up the alley to 409 Wyatt Street, the home of my maternal grandparents – Edwin and Loverna Barber. I was often there after school or on Saturdays. The ranch house, just a block and a half from our home, was physically small but large in terms of creativity and affection. You would always find approval there.

I would enter through the car port door, say “Hi” to Bama (BAH-muh,Bama dressed up for the towns historic celebration my grandmother) and usually head straight to the basement workshops. There was the silk screen painting workshop, the tool bench where I made telegraph sets, the photography corner, and the roller skating area.

But if not going downstairs, to the right of the basement door, you entered the living room with its simple maple furniture, picture window and paneled walls.

At the far end of the living room, where the hallway led to the bedrooms, there was the in-the-wall bookcase that held the stereo equipment. This is where Bapa (BAH-puh, my grandfather) kept the classical music recordings. The collection of 33 1/3 LP records stood on end. A few of them were made of red vinyl which you could see through when held to the light of the picture window. Nearby were the reel-to-reel tapes for his beloved Wollensak recorder. They were recordings of other classical music, sermons, and a copy of the soundtrack he used when performing his “ventriloquist” act with Jerry the puppet for Sunday School kids.

Our ever artistic Bapa - dressed up for the town's sesquicentennial celebration

It was common to enter the house and find Bapa working on some creation in the basement and Bama cleaning the house or ricing potatoes. Whatever the activity, you could count on the house being filled with the rich sound of classical music but most often, the waltz.

I heard more waltzes than any other type of classical music. What was it about three quarter time that thrilled him so?  Was it that most waltzes sound like a celebration or that waltzes are rarely, if ever, in minor keys? Or was it because the waltz just naturally lifts a person’s spirits? What made them so engaging?

One spring afternoon I went for a regular visit at 409 Wyatt but upon entering the home I found Bapa in the living room in tears . . . sobbing. Having just turned ten this was very unsettling. I had seen Bapa cry before but they were always hallelujah tears . . . tears of joy and blessing usually expressed at church or when the grandchildren would gather at a reunion. But today he was openly weeping and running his hand nervously through his silver hair as he paced back and forth. What could be wrong?

He didn’t wait for me to ask. Upon seeing me, with his arms raised, he blurted out dramatically that General MacArthur had died. He’d just heard it on the radio. He continued to pace as he told me about this great man who led our military during two great wars. He had been a divisional commander when Bapa served in the Army in France during WWI. Maybe memories of that time of his life were fueling his emotion. He continued his uncharacteristic pacing with an occasional exhausting sigh of “Oh . . . oh, my!”

I kept reverent and watched. It went on. I had never experienced such an expression of grief. I had never seen such a display of love and loss at the passing of another person. It’s clear even to my youthful heart, because I know my grandfather so well, that great men have the capacity to move people.

Later that afternoon, as I tinkered quietly in the basement workshops, I heard the sounds of the waltz drifting down from the living room stereo. The volume was a little higher than normal. His grief had turned to a grateful reflection of a life well lived. Now, it was the grand and sweeping pomp of the waltz that allowed Bapa to celebrate the life of a man in whom he recognized greatness.

To this day, whenever I hear a waltz, I think of Bapa. Each one is the Waltz of the Barbers.

If You Were The Only Girl in the World

Usually once or twice a month there was a Saturday night routine for the kids in the Tidball household. There was a rushed atmosphere about the house with a noticeable buzz in the kitchen area and our parent’s downstairs bedroom as they dressed in their finest for an evening out. But they weren’t preparing to go to a show to be entertained – they were the show!

Mom would pause from doing her hair and make-up to come to the kitchen to press out dough made from the Chef Boyardee pizza kit. She could do it in her sleep. Mix up the dough – quickly stretch it to the edge of a larger than recommended cookie sheet – add the tomato sauce – sprinkle a few ingredients to season – and place it in the oven – then return to the make-up.

It was good pizza – the only pizza we ever knew. I learned later you could actually have someone make the pizza for you and they would serve it to you in a restaurant. Mom’s pizza was a cross between thin crust and hand tossed. Occasionally you would come across a hole in the pizza where it had been stretched a little too far. She would add toppings which was a challenge when serving six children with differing tastes. My older brother’s black olives were to one end of the pizza and my green ones occupied a corner section. There would be mushrooms on a sliver or two and a section for the onion lovers. A few bits of hamburger were placed evenly across the surface of the pizza in what was largely a ceremonial gesture. The finished sheet looked like a Democrat gerrymandering map. Occasionally, two pieces of hamburger would occupy the same four-inch square section of the pizza – this was known as the “deep dish” section.

Dad dressed in his dark suit with his one-of-a-kind white dress shirt. He was always struggling to get that top button closed and was careful not to get anything on the same show shirt that served him for years. The shirt was special as it was a part of one of his gags in the song and joke show. He would tell the audience of his nice white shirt and about this fantastic salesman in a downtown clothing store in Toronto (his home town) who had sold it to him. The salesman knew dad’s budget was tight and he was only shopping for a simple dress shirt but the amazing salesman kept wanting to show dad his finest line. Dad finally relented and let the salesman do his presentation about the finest in imported Egyptian cotton dress shirts for men with discriminating taste. “Just look at the cuffs! Just look at the collars made of this fine Egyptian cotton!” the salesman opined. Dad was convinced this was the way to go and now is showing the Saturday night crowd at the Coffeen Baptist Church Adult Sunday School Class Annual Valentine Banquet just what a great purchase he had made. He walked among the audience pointing to the immaculate cuffs until he came to a woman who didn’t appear convinced. Dad would then say “here, let me give you have a better look at the collar” and he would take off his jacket and lean down for her to have a good look and then the crowd behind him would erupt in laughter. While he may have bought the finest in Egyptian Cotton collar and cuffs – the rest of the shirt was in shreds and hanging by a thread. It was a signature schtick of the act. Late at night when they returned from the gig I would often meet them at the bathroom sink where dad would remove his show make-up and there was that limp, tattered shirt, clinging to him yet ready for next week’s show.

It was a song and joke show. Mom would accompany Dad’s solos as she is an amazing talent at the piano and can play anything by ear in the key of C, which coincidentally, happens to be a key Dad would frequently pass through. They had an Al Jolson/Jimmy Durante songbook plus a little black three-ring binder book of jokes that has changed little in fifty years of entertaining: “He’s a nice dresser but his front draw sticks out too far.”

I was introduced to the art of story telling watching Dad do his schtick before a college group in the old snack bar on the small college campus. I was in the very back of the soda shop. A simple spotlight was on Dad up front. With a mic in one hand and his other hand free for gesturing he told them about going home to find his oldest son in the back yard yelling at a pet rabbit. I almost raised my hand to correct him – we don’t have any pet rabbits at home. I knew my dad never lied so what’s going on here?  He kept up with his story as those around me listened intently to the man who controlled the audience. Dad told them, “I saw my son holding this rabbit and being very stern with it. My son was saying ‘One plus one’ and ‘two plus two’.” So Dad tells the college crowd, “I said to Curtis, why are you being so cross with the little rabbit?” To which Curt replied, “My teacher today said rabbits could multiply fast . . . this guy can’t even add!”  When the audience burst in to laughter I knew I was on to something good.

But why couldn’t the story be about me? If you’re making it up and we don’t have any rabbits – why not say you found me in the backyard with the rabbits?  Then one night, in a different venue, Dad spotted me in the audience out of the corner of his eye. When he got to the joke about the rabbit – now the story had me in the mix. I wanted to stand and grab a bit of the spotlight and when the audience finally laughed – boom – I’m in! I’m in showbiz!

Dad always implied the act was a way to make an extra $25 for the family but we all knew – he loved the spotlight. One of the most amazing aspects of their showbiz career was that Mom could listen to the same jokes over and over and over again and still respond with an approving nod or grin to let the audience know she still gets tickled every time she hears them. Did I mention she has an acting background?

Here’s a clip of the two of them repeating a bit of the act for a family gathering. The camera is on Dad but be sure to listen for her amazing work at the piano. Notice how she can follow his phrasing perfectly and how he is so un-rushed as he works the crowd.  You’ll also notice my brother, Curt, who used to work with rabbits.

Here’s a second clip of one of his favorite numbers – Shortnin’ Bread.  We requested it at the last second so he didn’t have a chance to recall all the words but put on a show anyway. (It starts out with no sound – so just wait a moment or two.)

Mr. Holland’s Opus

Over the past thirty-five years, my college roommates and our spouses have gathered about every six months for a reunion. The eight of us will meet at rotating locations either in each others homes or we’ll check into a big city hotel to enjoy some sightseeing. We spend parts of three days together enjoying good meals and sharing the unfolding stories of our lives. As we gather at a table or crowd into one couple’s hotel room we have told of both the joys and the sorrows of our lives – the loss of parents, miscarriages, rearing teenagers, career and health issues, the marriages of our children, and then the celebration of the grand-kids. There is hearty laughter along with shared tears. This union of friends is an anchor in our lives.

On one such weekend gathering we chose to take in the movies and saw Mr. Holland’s Opus starring Richard Dreyfus.  We enjoyed the story and the soundtrack that included the music of our youth.  Each one of us could associate a special teacher from our lives with the fictional Mr. Holland.

In the middle of the film, sometime after the Holland’s have discovered their child is deaf, there’s a scene in the kitchen of their home that held special meaning for Sue and me.  The scene is the summation of the hurt and disappointment and pain the wife bears in raising a deaf child.  Mr. Holland, who lives a life anchored to music and education, has been in denial for years about having a child who is unable to hear his music . . . to experience music . . . to communicate with the world as he does through music. He has almost written off his son.

In this poignant scene the wife is reduced to tears at his nonchalance. Mr. Holland has come and gone for these years of child rearing and left the struggle in her lap.  She has quietly handled the hardship and the frustration of raising a child unable to communicate and now it all comes apart and on the kitchen floor she cries out “I just want to talk with my son! I just want to talk to him and have him hear and say simple things in return!”  It was a telling moment for Mr. Holland and a turning point in his journey as a parent as he now recognizes his selfish distance.

At the close of the film as we are brought to tears of joy at the triumphal conclusion, I turned to exit with the others but Sue is still seated and she’s not moving.  I bent down to ask her if she’s ready to leave and notice she’s crying.  For a teacher, it seemed an appropriate response to a film that honors the art of teaching young minds that often don’t want to learn.  I assumed they were tears of joy. They weren’t.

As I sat next to her, she brought up the scene in the kitchen and her thoughts focused on our young son and our family struggle with his A.D.D (Attention Deficit Disorder.)  “That was Alex, Craig. I just want to talk to my son! I just want to talk to him and have him look me in the eyes and talk to me. Will he ever do that? Will he ever be able to hold his attention long enough to talk to me?”

Now the two of us are crying together as the people file out and our friends quietly step out to the lobby so we can share this private moment in an empty auditorium.

As we left the theater, I headed for the mens room. Soon I was joined by my roommates who asked if everything was alright . . . could they help in any way?  I began to tell them of Sue’s comments and found myself crying again. So now, in a public bathroom at the movie theater in the mall in Alton, Illinois, there are these grown men doing a group hug and crying together next to the towel dispenser as patrons quietly come and go and wonder what in the world is going on with those guys.

Here’s a ten minute clip of the final scene of Mr. Holland’s Opus. You might want to have a tissue handy.

I Noticed You

The pastor of my youth was a special individual and unique among pastors. For me, from about age 7 to age 20, he built the definition of “pastor” that will last a lifetime. There is something different, something pure in his way.

He’s a brilliant speaker who leaves you leaning forward. When he speaks – clocks disappear. His studied pastoral heart coupled with his gifted writing skills have shared his insights with other ministers for generations. While his knowledge and understanding are deep his motives are pure and simple and thus his message is clear to all ears. This is the man. He is one of the few men I’ve met in my life who actually has a twinkle in his eye.

As a teenager, our family church was large for such a small town. Each Sunday you could find between 500 – 600 people at this church associated with a small college just across the street. My pastor led this diverse group for sixteen years, a tenure which speaks to both his effectiveness and to the affection of his parishioners. I knew other preachers but he was the only pastor I knew for my growing up years. Even kids know the difference. Preachers have priorities – pastors have purpose.

When I turned sixteen it was time for the long-awaited Right of Passage of getting a driver’s license. With my savings I bought my first used car – a 1963 Olds Cutlass Convertible. It had a 3 speed manual transmission with a stick between the bucket seats, a peppy 330 cubic inch V8, and an AM radio. (I’d never driven a manual transmission before so when Mr. Hunsaker took my money and told me I could back it out of his garage, it was a jerky and embarrassing start/stop/stall process.) Here’s a picture of what it looked like in my dreams however my 1963 Cutlass was actually white with a black top and black interior.

Here’s a cheesy 1963 General Motors ad for the upcoming ’64 Cutlass which looks just like the ‘63s. Aside from the white interior, this was my car although, as I said earlier, I had an AM radio – I didn’t actually have musicians in my car as they do in this ad.

This $300 car was cool but would need help to be really cool. Being a fan of automotive design, I tried repainting the black accents on the stock hub caps but the car still looked like its owner was 58 years old. So, I removed the hub caps and painted the wheels flat black. Next, I applied eight coats of cleaner wax to every square centimeter of that glorious machine so even the rust spots were protected from road grime. The carpets were shampooed and the seats cleaned and treated. I now had a signature look – clean black & white, top down sporty, but I was missing one key ingredient – the sound of presence.

With the help of my buddy who knew all about cars, I added two “glass packs” to the exhaust system to get the desired deep throaty presence. Not loud, not obnoxious, but it made a statement of sophomoric sophistication. Of all the many cars I’ve owned this one got better gas mileage when moving than when idling at a stop sign. With the clutch in and the top down, you just had to pump the gas when stopped just to hear that wonderful rumble from the glass packs. Now I was sight AND sound.

The pastor called our home and asked to go for a spin in the new car and would I pick him up after school at his office. This man with the ever-full Day Planner and a Rolodex full of important adults – called my home.

I drove up to the side door of the church just outside his office and gave a gentle rev of the glass packs to let the neighborhood know, in a subtle way, that Craig was here for his 4 o’clock. I assumed by now he knew it was my signature sound. He bounded out of his office and approached the passenger door. He was a giant of a man in a diminutive body. This afternoon he wasn’t wearing his usual suit coat . . . his tie may have been undone. He stuck his head in the window, greeted me and gave the ’63 Cutlass an admiring look.

He took his place in the passenger seat and I eased up to the stop sign . . . coasting and lightly revving the motor. There were no warning dings about seat belts – we didn’t use them – the only sound was the gentle rumble of my presence. As we drove around the corner and headed to the edge of town for a test drive, he looked about the car for things to admire. He picked up on the clean look of the dash, the appearance and feel of the fine black vinyl and he noted how clean the windows were. When he offered to buy a Coke I turned the car toward the A & W Root Beer stand by the high school. I parked in my usual spot and my normal waitress came to the car to take our order.

I could tell the conversation was now subtly drifting away from car talk. I was a little nervous. Was he going to suddenly spring the Four Spiritual laws on me? What would I say? How could I respond in a respectful manner that implies – Yes, I’ve worked through that theology, thank you very much, but tell me, what do you really think about Walker brand mufflers? I thought this was supposed to be about cars this afternoon.

There was a little lull in the conversation. I had run out of things to demonstrate – I only had AM radio and I’m pretty sure he had wipers on his car. And then he said with a calm and clear voice, “Craig . . .” – (Oh boy, here it comes!) – “Craig, I’ve noticed you . . . haven’t been paying attention . . . to my sermons.”

“Uh, ahh, buh, …duh,” I stammered. “Well, I make sure I stay reverent and respectful of others, Pastor, but it’s a college crowd, you know. You’re preaching to the college profs and students. It’s over my head . . . way over my head. I’m only a sophomore in high school. You use big words – sometimes four and five syllables. I’ll be still, I’ll be courteous – but it’s just not meant for me. In time, I’ll be there.”

Nice comeback I thought – articulate, definitive, truthful, and respectful. Maybe now would be a good time to mention I’m thinking about getting an 8-track player.

He thoughtfully paused and then offered, “OK, Craig, I’ll make you a deal. I will be very careful in my outlines and in the words I use and I will deliberately speak in a manner a high school student can grasp and then we’ll talk about it again sometime. OK?”

GULP. He had me. He had put his very pulpit in play – the main tool of his trade.

He had won the day. But his victory didn’t occur at his generous close. He had me very early in the conversation and may not have even known it. It wasn’t when the power of his position and tenure preceded him or when his aura caused me to flinch at the possibility of being backed in to a theological corner. And it wasn’t when I fogged up and stumbled through a silly response to his main statement.

He had me when he said, “Craig, . . . I noticed you…” He noticed me. This man of God, this pastor to hundreds of smart and industrious people, this man who keeps peace among conflicting committees and among the flower display ladies and who deals with divorce and depression and budgets and sermons and who stops everything on a Thursday afternoon to say to a drifting high school sophomore . . . “I noticed you.”

Do I notice others?

Do I notice the teen, the fourth grader, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the lonely? And when I do, do I respond in a manner following Jesus’ example? Do I engage without any expectation of return? Not to raise me up but to lift their spirits?

The most basic act of acknowledging a person brings them worth. A simple greeting and a good word is an easy place to start. It’s a gift freely given and gratefully received. It can embolden and has an unbelievable shelf life. There’s no reciprocation necessary – none expected. It’s a grace thing.

I was made worthy with words. I didn’t need to wash his car, or perform a religious task, or respond with a promise to love and respect. I didn’t deserve the recognition but it came my way in spite of me. He noticed me.

Who are you noticing this week?

Robert’s Rules of Pummeling

I was inspired by the example of my 4th-5th grade Sunday School teacher to take my turn at leading a midweek group of junior boys at our church. Mr. Rice had an intense interest in the spiritual lives and well being of 9 and 10 year olds. During the week he was an employee of aerospace firm McDonnell-Douglas and he always encouraged us to think big. He regularly shared stories from the space program that further ignited our interests in the already exciting new agency.  Mr. Rice would frequently bring astronaut posters and actual spaceship parts to Sunday School. As a class project we built a model of the upcoming Gemini spacecraft. Later, when Lt. Colonel Edward White made that historic first space walk, I was in on the project – he was our guy. I am grateful to Mr. Rice for taking the risk to teach with passion.

I couldn’t expect to measure up to Mr. Rice but I agreed to teach the Wednesday night class of fifth grade boys. There were ten young men in the group and we met in the “tower” room under the steeple at the church.

My objectives for the class were to teach scriptural truths with application to their lives and expose them to basic leadership and development ideas for their coming years. Here’s the list of topics:

  1. How to shake hands and make eye contact
  2. How to build a three point sermon and how to take sermon notes
  3. How to take a girl on a date
  4. How to speak to an adult
  5. Learn the basics of Robert’s Rules of Order to be able to lead a meeting
  6. Memorize the books of the Bible.
  7. Show up

I added a two-part contest as an incentive. First, if they could recite the names of the books of the Bible to me with no errors, we would go to an Indiana Pacer game and stay overnight in Indy. Second, everyone reciting the books would also get a Swiss Army Knife engraved with their name and finally, the guy with the best sermon notes on a designated Sunday would get a bells-and-whistles Swiss Army Knife complete with multi-head screw driver, saw, can opener and magnifier. This thing could prepare a sermon. Game on!

The contest got them engaged – Indiana is the heart of basketball country and who can’t use another pocketknife. When I was able to announce the Pacers would be playing Michael Jordan and the mighty Chicago Bulls it sealed the deal. Some struggled with memorization and tried to limp through with buddy help but there was no room to fudge – all sixty-six books, in order, to me, no errors. They groaned and cited the impossible nature of the task but showed up again next week to give it another try.

Our evenings consisted of a scripture lesson and then our study of one of these leadership lessons. Again, they groaned and complained about such needless and boring stuff. “It’s like arithmetic, Mr. Tidball, we’ll never use this stuff.”  But when they saw I had an agenda and wouldn’t budge they became engaged. I knew because they got quiet.

The pastor met us in his study and presented a simple outline of Sunday’s upcoming sermon. He was a seasoned pastor and showed the boys his well-worn Bible. He explained the use of the concordance and pointed to his favorite resource books on the full bookcase behind him. Someone asked, “but how do you know what to talk about?” which led to a timely exchange about his daily Bible study and prayer time.

How to talk to an adult puzzled them. Why would they want to in the first place and what would we talk about? I arranged for five pairs of senior men to station themselves at quiet corners around the church with instructions not to lead the discussions but let the boys direct the flow. I prepared the boys discussing the importance of listening and how to ask leading questions . . . it’s all centered on a sincere desire to get to know the person. I knew it was a stretch for them to concentrate on something outside themselves and their immediate needs and wants. By twos, the boys left to interview the adult men and I listened in on a number of interesting conversations as the boys, nervous at first, probed into the interests and experiences that shaped the lives of these mature individuals. Those interviewed were grateful for the experience and that night many new friendships began.

This may appear a young age to talk about dating and I wasn’t encouraging it but it’s already on their minds and in just a few short years it will happen and the issues need to be on the table. We talked about basic chivalry and etiquette and of preparing to honor the other individual. We touched on possible topics of discussion, how to lead in conversation, how to escort a woman, and how to order in a restaurant. I also spoke of what not to talk about on a date – what topics were out-of-bounds such as speaking ill of others. It was all about behaving as a gentleman if you wanted to be set apart as a gentleman.

I contacted each boy’s mother and asked her to participate in a Coke date with her son. They were to let the boys decide on the location, have them direct the route there, initiate the conversation and stay on topic. The mothers had to play the part of a young lady and not let the conversation slip into a homework discussion or family business. For one mother, known as a talker, I had to spend extra time outlining the program and stressing this was a time for the young man to shine. In nice words – keep your mouth shut even though you can’t stand the silence. I’ll admit the boys were a disappointed to learn they’d be taking out their mothers but they enjoyed being in charge and the focus of attention. The talkative mother returned after the date pleased with the experience but ready to explode with the words she’d held inside for the last hour.

The final lesson was on Robert’s Rules of Order. How do organizations, like the church or the government, conduct meetings and get anything done when there are so many opinions and ideas that must reach common ground? This would be the most basic of lessons – what is a “Motion”, what is a “Second” and how does a discussion work? With the big trip to the Indianapolis just a week away our sample topic to demonstrate Robert’s Rules would be – Where would we eat on the way to the arena. I suggested four fast food options and again outlined how someone must first put forth an idea to see if it will find support.

Some boys were seated in a row of chairs before me and the rest were standing behind in our semi-circle gathering. First, a “Motion” is put forth – a simple proposal statement followed, hopefully, by a supporting voice who “Seconds” the proposal that leads to a discussion. From the front row, one of the quieter boys just a few bubbles shy of nerd-dom, sensed the spirit of Robert’s Rules and gently raised his hand in what for him was a bold move. As chairman, I acknowledged him. “I think it would be a great idea for our trip if we . . . “.  I gently interrupted him to point out the proper form. “When making a motion you simply say ‘I move that we have dinner at . . .’ and then fill in the rest.”  So he started again, “I move we have dinner at Arby’s.”

Now we’re learning, I prided myself. I’m getting through, I’m imparting knowledge and sewing seeds of leadership and they’re participating. But before I could complete the thought and before the young ‘mover’ could finish the full grin at his boldness in leading the way, in one swift move four guys from the back row dove on top of him and started punching and pinching and rolling him around on the floor. “There’s no way we’re going to that place – change it! Take it back! Are you crazy?! I say we’re going to Burger King and that’s that!!

There was nothing in my Roberts Rules book about separating a fight but we did manage in short order to restore calm and return to our places. It was a great teaching moment in explaining this was not about might but about the power of words and the ability to express your ideas clearly. You must first wait to see if someone will “Second” the “Motion” and then we’ll discuss its merits. If it doesn’t pass a vote then you can propose Burger King and we’ll vote on it in the same way. You must be able to make a compelling case for Burger King to convince enough of the others if you’re going to win the vote with your idea.

The frustration of having to leave the familiar and instantaneous force of brawn to engage their brain and use words was palpable. Their tendency was to just strike out. Well, the first “Motion” died for lack of a second due to the back row boys staring down anyone with an ounce of nerve to offer up support. They finally made their Burger King motion, which got a quick second, and the vote soon passed. It was just a primer but an interesting evening on the need to articulate ideas in a group setting.

The big night finally arrived. One boy had to recite the books of the Bible in the parking lot before we loaded up but we now had 100% participation. “Now remember,” I said to the group, “when you travel with Mr. Tidball, you travel with shirt tails tucked in. We’re representing our group, our church, our town and we want to leave a good impression that we are young men with purpose.  We loaded up the van with the fathers who joined us on the trip and headed to Indy and our first stop, Burger King.

I had called ahead and asked the Pacer front office for permission to get my group onto the playing floor before the game. “No, no,” they said, “you can’t meet the players or the coach, you can’t get in the locker room.”  “Mr. Thomas,” I responded, “you don’t understand, all I want is to just let them step onto the surface of the basketball floor for sixty seconds and experience the size of the arena and the lights and the crowd.”  “That’s all?” he said. “That’s all,” I replied.  When we arrived at the arena he greeted us and he took us directly into the basement of the building just outside the locker room of the Pacers. The boys huddled in awe just knowing what was on the other side of the cinder block wall. We headed down long dimly lit hallway with the low hanging pipes then another quick turn and suddenly we were on the basketball court! I’ll never forget the wide smiles and wide eyes of wonder as the boys slowly took it all in . . . the noise, the lights, the players just a few feet away, the space and the specter of it all. Unexpectedly, the host handed each boy a souvenir pennant of the Pacers and we were off to find our seats in the nosebleed section. The memory of that moment is forever in their minds.

Fifth grade boys are just the right age – eager to learn, increasingly aware of their individuality, and secretly appreciative of people who take time for them. Even now, some twenty years later, I’ll get a note or a greeting from one of the young men who pulls out his Swiss Army Knife.  “Thanks, Mr. Tidball, I remember our class” . . . and then I remember Mr. Rice and the Gemini spaceship.

The Punkin Head Reunion

Whether you are a doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief, or any other profession, there’s a good chance somewhere in your early childhood you had a special something from which you were inseparable. It may have been a stuffed animal, a fuzzy blanket, or a small well-worn pillow. It had a name.

My son carried a small print fabric stuffed bear called “Beepee”. My cousin’s blanket, known as “KiKi”, was always with him. My older brother was a bit more image conscious as he had an imaginary companion – “Ferndale Watson” – a name including our father’s name and the city where we visited our grandparents. My daughter was best buddies with a plastic dog with a rotating head known as “Rub-a-dub” who, like Ferndale Watson, is still around today. For a little kid, there’s something reassuring about an anytime friend, who doesn’t butt in, always agrees with you, shares everything and always thinks your plans for the day are perfect. Had these fuzzy friends been permitted to mature they would have made great psychiatrists.

I had such a buddy – Punkin Head. He was my constant companion. Maybe being a part of a larger family, the constancy of my little friend was a comfort. Punkin Head was a golden bear with red shorts and a red ribbon at his neck as if he were a perpetual gift. Had I known the word “dapper” back then I could have better described him to others in the sandbox. His tuft of blond hair on top had a punk style – he was ahead of his time. (Here’s a photo I used as practice when learning PhotoShop -click to enlarge)

There may have been a connection between my fondness for Punkin Head and the popular fire fighting figure – Smokey the Bear, widely recognized in the 1950s. Smokey did public service announcements every Saturday morning during cartoon shows (when cartoons were cartoons). He was also featured in the popular Little Golden Books series which introduced many of us to the early stories that stimulated our imaginations.

There was only one Punkin Head and the bond was understood in the family. He wasn’t a toy to be shared or fought over – he belongs to Craig. There was a code. I heard talk in the house that he was becoming threadbare and dirty but that didn’t change who he was. His arms were always in the open position.

Punkin Head didn’t grow on mom but she thought something was growing on him. He was a little sticky, matted and dirty and now Craig wants to take him to church with him. My older brother had it figured out with his invisible friend, Ferndale Watson. The car could be loaded for a trip and if he forgot to pack his buddy – Ferndale would magically show up in the back seat twenty miles down the road. But for me, Punkin Head was a physical presence, room had to be made for him. He was on the list.

Then one day – he vanished! Punkin Head was gone. Was he a runaway, a lost soul, kidnapped, eaten, had he lost his stuffing? Had he found another?

I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that this was when my little mind changed career options from becoming a foreign missionary like I’d learned about in Sunday School to that of fireman or cowboy. But one could wonder how the lingering unknowns of a lost soul mate might disturb such foundations. Punkin Head was no more.

Now its fifty-four or so years later and I’m visiting the folks in my hometown. There was a sound from the front room and soon my lovely sister, Leslie, entered with a FedEx box just dropped at the front door. It was addressed to me “In Care Of” my dad at his address. My first thought was, as a trustee for the college, someone was trying to reach me and didn’t know my home address so they sent it to my dad, a well-known retired professor. It’s probably some alum or friend of the college sending research papers on an issue of the school about which they are disenchanted. The return address read – Zack Corzine of Akron, Ohio – sounds like someone from a class in the mid 90’s. I don’t want to deal with this right now – I’m here to see the doctor and I’ve bigger fish to fry.

But I opened the box . . . and there he was – it was Punkin Head – all growed up!  He cleans up nice. And while I never knew him to say much he could always communicate well and he included a letter of explanation addressed to me:

Hi, Craig:

This is Punkin Head. Ohhhh! At last I found you! If I could hug you, I would.

You won’t believe how I’ve tried to find you through the years. I’ll never forget the day we were separated. You know, your mother never realized the strong bond there was between us. I think the only reason she got rid of me was plain old DIRT. Even though I’ll have to admit I did look terrible and filthy, I’d rather be loved and disgustingly dirty than nice and clean and set aside somewhere unloved.

My story has been a rather sad one.  When your mother decided I’d have to go, I stayed that first night in the trash can. Early the next morning the garbage man was taking the trash to the city dump. He stopped in the back of a McDonald’s to get a quick cup of coffee and I happened to fall out on the ground. Unnoticed by the man, I lay in the parking lot until a family came out from McDonald’s, picked me up and I found myself on my way to Akron, Ohio to live with a mean little kid by the name of Zack. He’d play so hard and yank on my legs til I thought he’d tear them off of me. Then I’d be left in a corner – all bent over. There was no one to love me like my pal, Craig.

One day, years later, Zack’s mother was cleaning out some things and she said, “What on earth are we going to do with this old Teddy Bear?” I got up my nerve and told Zack if he could find my old pal Craig and send me to him, I would be so happy. I couldn’t remember your last name but as fate would have it, Zack’s parents had been reading a book, “Portraits in Character.” “That’s him! That’s my friend! Please send me back to him.”

A chapter in the “Portraits” book was about Watson and Bonnie Tidball and Zack’s mom thought it would be a good idea to send me back home to that loving family.

So here I am. Through the years I’ve cleaned myself up and got some new clothes. I noticed by the picture in the back of the book that you have changed quite a bit too, and I hear that now you are going through an extended treatment to cure Hepatitis C.

I know that grown men don’t cuddle little bears but I’m going to be here for you as a reminder that I’ve never forgotten you and will stick by you through this hard time in your life. Your mother is so excited that we are united again.

Your are my best pal ever!!


Punkin Head

He’s all growed up. Maybe he’s colored his hair a tad. His hair is thin but that’s not threadbare – that’s genetic thinning.  And he still sits there with his arms open, doesn’t say anything, and likes my plans for the day. We picked up right where we left off. The conspirators of Operation Punkin Head – Mom, Dad, and Leslie are enjoying a moment of fun but for you and me – it’s together again for the first time.

Punkin Head, I’m glad you’re home.  You’re right . . . we don’t cuddle at this age and I may not take you on my trips but still your presence means the world to me. That’s because you remind me of my amazing mother. You always did, you know . . . ever since we were first together. You always listened and supported me, you think everything I do and say is great, you have a pure spirit, I’ve never heard you say a disparaging word, you never speak ill of anyone, and when I took on other loves in my life you just made more room and everything I now love – you love. I can’t think of a better person of whom to be reminded.

You’re home again. In a few days there will be a little girl and a little boy who will come for a visit and they will think you belong to them. It’s OK. You can play with them and get sticky and get slobbered on but at the end of the day it’s just you and me, forever.

Night night – Punkin Head.

The Flying Municipal Baton

I previously wrote about my hometown’s city park in the post: Cold Cider and Glazed Donuts. There are many stories here prompted by views at each turn of my morning run.

This empty field, as example, is a short stroll from the park pavilion. Today it sports softball games,kite flying and sack races but in my high school years this was the location of the band shell. The structure is long since gone and they’ve even filled in the graceful sloping amphitheater that once framed the venue.  For years, local music patrons spread their blankets on the grassy slopes or sat in their cars around the bowl to enjoy the weekly summer band concerts.

The band shell was a simple design constructed of two semi-circle trusses – the larger one in front and the smaller one to the rear both arching over the concrete platform. From these trusses a gently curved ceiling panel was suspended. It was designed to reflect band sound to the audience and to semi-protect the band from the elements. After years of service, the band shell was finally condemned as structurally unsound. There was speculation at the time that it was actually the band that was unsound and taking down the structure was just politically easier than breaking up the band. Either way, the summer tradition of music at the park came to a close.

While in high school, I played tuba in the Municipal Band (“The Muni Band”) performing weekly at the city park’s band shell. The band consisted largely of high school students or college kids home for summer break although a handful of adults joined with us simply for the timeless joy of performing music. We were credited for each summer rehearsal and concert and the earnings were paid out at Christmas time. Mrs. Binghampton, the short and stocky bass drummer, labored through all of the rehearsals and performances for the sole purpose of building up a Christmas fund for her children.

I played under two directors. The first was a retired public school band director. He spoke with a voice that could be heard over any instrument invented to date. He had a sharp yet almost monotone delivery with nasal overtones. He spoke as if his sentences were a performance. There was such a steady cadence in his speaking that you could predict how long before a period would occur. His voice would cut through any other sound as he spoke efficient words of direction while leading the civic band through a piece of music. He had only one volume – it didn’t matter if he was speaking a private word of instruction or an admonition to the second chair flute – the whole band was in on the conversation.

There was a bit of showman in him as you will find in most band directors. It’s part of the Sousa gene that drew them to the discipline in the first place. One of this director’s signature showtime moves we band members could count on seeing once or twice a summer was the way he would dramatically lose his baton in the middle of a concert piece. As the music neared the emotional peak of the selection and his arms swept up to lead us (usually a cymbal crash was eminent), his baton would mysteriously fly out of his hands, travel high above the band and land somewhere in the percussion section. It all happened very fast but from my memory and likely his vision of the event – it was something like the slow motion scene from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the ape discovers the weapon power of a calcified femur bone and hurls it high overhead in defiance.

He continued to direct the music without the aid of a baton as he stepped off the podium to retrieve it. He worked his twisting and turning way through the band members being careful not to upset the music stands. The clothes pins used to secure the music against the summer breezes protruded from the stands making negotiation of the maze particularly difficult. Once the baton was retrieved (the musicians knew not to get it and pass it forward) he would ease his way back to the podium. Occasionally he’d pause over the shoulder of this or that musician using his baton to point out where we were in the music as if the first chair saxophone player had been aimlessly improvising for the last five minutes of the piece. He must have imagined the audience as awestruck that this band of musicians could continue to perform without a director at the podium . . . “Oh the discipline and leadership skill of this baton-less maestro!”

The director had a unique way of talking to musicians during an actual concert performance. He would shape his hand in a tight “OK” symbol and hold it firmly to his mouth. But he didn’t open the “O” to form a megaphone but rather he held it there like a secret ranger spy microphone as he continued to direct. And then, right in the middle of the concert with patrons absorbing a Leroy Anderson number, he’d say in a full voice with that flat tone that all could hear: “Trombones, when we play that section in the future I’d like more expression.”  Regardless of his quirks that we grew to love, he was a dedicated musician with a sense of civic duty.

The next director was a shorter man who had followed the first one through the public schools. He had an unusual shape for a short man and weekly would hold forth his Humpty Dumpty impersonation in balancing his broad midsection atop his tiny Babe Ruth feet as he stood upon the director’s podium. He would direct with both arms using sweeping motions that often included a discreet left-handed motion to brush his hair back into place.  His favorite part of any piece was when the music called for a change in tempo and his normal sweeping side to side directing would become a pronounced up and down motion. He was a favorite director and a talented individual who taught me vocal and instrumental music from the sixth grade on including the trombone, trumpet, baritone and tuba.

Two perennial Municipal Band favorites were Bugler’s Holiday by Leroy Anderson of Sleigh Ride fame which featured the trio of Bill (home from college) along with Jim and his sister, Sandra. You could always count on this song delivering a lot of congratulatory horn honks from the patrons parked around the rim of the small amphitheater.  (Here’s a video of another high school band performing the piece.)

The other favorite of mine was Overture in B-flat by Giovannini which feature driving leads by our bass saxophone section. One reason I liked it was because when it really gets flying you could hide a lot of missed notes in the dissonance.  In the middle you’ll hear a passage that sounds a lot like the Star Trek theme.  (Here’s a video of another band playing the piece. We probably sounded like this but in my mind we were way better.)  “Next time, saxophones, let’s have a little more expression!”